NO SELF-RESPECTING nativity play would be without the magi (referred to also as the three kings or wise men) who followed the star, and the story of their visit to Bethlehem. Who were these mysterious strangers, and what did their visit mean?
IMMEDIATELY after reporting Jesus’s birth in a matter of one sentence, Matthew’s Gospel introduces us to “wise men” who travelled from the East, following a star to lead them to the newborn king of Israel (Matthew 3). In the Bible, there weren’t three, however, and they weren’t kings. Matthew doesn’t give us a number, and later legend deduced that there were three because they gave three presents: the famous gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Only later were they called kings. In the Bible, the reason they are referred to as magi is because the word used is taken from Old Persian, and is the job title of the astrologers of the Persian royal court. No wonder, then, that they followed a star.
Matthew wants to demonstrate that the birth of Jesus fulfils scripture. Isaiah the Prophet (Chapter 60) had predicted that the birth of the Messiah would be witnessed by the people of all the nations of the world, who would come to pay tribute bearing gold and frankincense. Matthew is therefore telling us that Jesus is a Messiah for everyone in the world.
It may be that the magi arrived much later than the shepherds of Luke’s account. When Herod wanted to intercept and kill the newborn rival for his throne, he asked the magi to tell him when exactly the star had appeared, and then instructed his soldiers to kill every child under two years of age. Had the magi already been travelling perhaps for up to two years?
THE magi bearing their gifts quickly became a standard of Christian art. The accompanying illustration is based upon one of the early depictions of the magi, and is taken from a mosaic in the new Basilica of St Apollinaris, in Ravenna, which was decorated in the second half of the sixth century. Already the magi are three, and — in order to show them as wise men from the East — the Byzantine artists who made the mosaic based their figures on the most exotic Easterners they knew: the Phrygians. The magi are depicted bringing great silver basins holding their gifts, and wearing the most exuberant Eastern trousers you can imagine, as well as the famous Phrygian caps, which later became a symbol of democratic freedom in the French Revolution.
Historically, the city of Cologne, in Germany, invested in the three kings in a big way. In the 12th century, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa stole the supposed relics of the three kings, which he had found in Milan, and gave them to his imperial capital. The cathedral built to house the relics took 632 years to complete, and remains the tallest Gothic cathedral in the world. By then, the magi had not only become known as kings, but had been given names and coats of arms, and treated like medieval princes. The city of Cologne is dedicated to the Three Kings to this day.
THE magi probably became referred to as kings as Christians reflected on a particular verse in scripture. Reflecting on the birth narrative of Matthew, they discovered another verse in Isaiah which seemed to be fulfilled in the story: “Nations will journey towards your light and kings to your radiance” (Isaiah 60.3). What more natural than to have kings paying their respects to the newborn King of Kings and Messiah of Israel?
The number three was a useful number for the kings, since, in the contemporary geography textbook of Claudius Ptolemy, there were three continents — Asia, Africa, and Europe — and those who were familiar with their Bibles knew also that there were three sons of Noah, from whom each of the branches of humanity were descended: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. One king for each continent, and one king for each son. The whole world really did come to worship Jesus the Messiah. Even today, sometimes the kings — no longer portrayed as Persian astrologers — are shown as coming from different ethnicities of the one human family.
A WRITER once quipped that if the magi had been wise women, they would have brought more appropriate gifts — food, warm clothing, nappies. Someone else has suggested that the gifts of the magi were the tools of their trade: gold, frankincense, and myrrh may have been used in their ancient rituals and experiments. Perhaps we should accept that the magi were the equivalent of the scientists of their day. Although their science was rudimentary, they sought to understand the mysteries of creation and, in a time when all things were seen as linked, they studied the heavens to answer questions about the earth.
Perhaps one of the most extraordinary things about our universe is the existence of minds that can think, that can observe the universe, and consciously develop theories about the nature of existence. Some theologians have argued that this is what is meant when scripture says that we are made “in the image of God”, with the ability to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1.28). Certainly, scripture asserts that God has given humanity a distinctive part to play: “You have made him little less than a god, crowning his head with glory and honour” (Psalm 8.5).
Human minds have plumbed the origins of the universe and the forces that drive the creation of galaxies and planets. We have explored the nature of life and consciousness, and unlocked many of the secrets of nature. Yet with the power of such knowledge comes great responsibility: to care for this creation, and use our knowledge in the service of wisdom.
Pause to thank God for the conscious and curious mind you have been given, and the skills and talents that it holds. Pray that you may use that knowledge and skill for the cause of good and the service of all that is lovely.
Lord of Life, as we recall the wise men who paid you humble homage after following the star to Bethlehem, teach us that in you lies the deepest truth and wisest answers to the mysteries of creation. Amen.
The Rt Revd Gregory K. Cameron is the Bishop of St Asaph.
This is an extract from Bishop Cameron’s An Advent Book of Days: Meeting the characters of Christmas, published by Canterbury Press at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.99); 978-1-78622-268-8.